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Response in the Arctic Circle

Melinda Rawcliffe led a COVID-19 response team in the remote Arctic Circle.

With a passion for remote and austere environments, Melinda Rawcliffe, PA-C, ’07, adjunct professor, ATSU-ASHS, is no stranger to practicing medicine far from her Arizona home. After working in locations like Iraq, Afghanistan, Suriname, Russia, and Trinidad and Tobago, she found herself in the distant and cold Arctic Circle.

Rawcliffe started working with a Fortune 100 company as their physician assistant and planned to stay in Alaska while the company proceeded through its exploration season. Little did she know her season would be extended, and she would be on the front line of defense against the coronavirus, leading a COVID-19 response team as western North Slope on-site chief medical officer.

“With COVID-19 hitting, the biggest point is to try and keep the core workforce that is here healthy,” Rawcliffe said. “And more importantly, away from all the native villages because we do not want to spread anything.”

Rawcliffe quickly went from regularly seeing patients to disaster planning mode. She pulled a team together and hit the ground running, as isolation alone would not be the answer. Being prepared for proper disinfection techniques and doing critical research to gain better understanding of what they were facing were just a few of the hurdles Rawcliffe faced in the early days of the pandemic.

Because of initial planning efforts, the workforce remained healthy with no reported cases of the virus. Rawcliffe was then able to transition from disaster planning mode to figuring out what was necessary to keep her workforce healthy.

“I feel that is where my background with ATSU has come into play, having been a student that was lucky enough to go through a phenomenal program, but also a professor to teach there,” Rawcliffe said. “I am reaching in the back of my mind, remembering all those things from the pulmonology class we just taught, or community health, and trying to bring all that full circle.”

At the end of May, after several extra months in Alaska, Rawcliffe was able to safely make her return trip home. She looks forward to the paradigm shift that should occur as a result of the pandemic, with innovation being rewarded and the stresses of healthcare work being addressed. Through her colleagues, Rawcliffe has seen some of the struggles healthcare workers are facing, including workers who are furloughed due to lack of patients.

“Don’t give up, don’t get frustrated,” Rawcliffe said. “I know it has almost become a cliché to say we are going to get through this together, but we are, and we need to band together.”

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